Time stood still as the ball was suspended in the mile-high sky. The Dolphins sideline, the fans watching at home on television, even the broadcasters were speechless as the pigskin turned end-over-end blasted from the foot place kicker Olindo Mare.
"He got it!"
ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick's call of that moment is forever ingrained in the earbuds of the Fins faithful. It was the culmination, the victory cry, of a brutal 60 minutes between two gladiator teams jockeying for position atop the AFC standings. A battle that propelled Miami to a 5-1 mark and pole position in ESPN's NFL power rankings; but the win came at a cost.
Jay Fiedler's game-winning drive was executed in spite of a broken thumb. Wide receiver Chris Chambers couldn't finish the game and would miss the following week against Buffalo. The offense's biggest contributor that night was able to finish the contest, but ensuing wrist surgery would put Oronde Gadsden on the shelf for the remainder of that 2002 season.
"It's up there in my top three most physical games," Gadsden said of that night in Denver. "The pads were popping. The way we played that game – smash-mouth – it was the most physical as far as we had three key players go down."
Gadsden's 77 yards led all receivers that night for Miami, and each of the five catches came at critical junctures. After a rocky start that saw the Dolphins struggle to traverse the stingy Broncos defense, a third-and-11 conversion on a pass to Gadsden sparked Miami's first scoring drive mid-way through the second quarter.
Faced with short fields throughout the opening half, the Dolphins defense bowed up, holding Denver to three field goals and a 9-7 halftime score.
The defensive charge continued after the intermission and was led by the usual suspects. Zach Thomas made 12 tackles. Jason Taylor filled up the stat sheet with a pair of sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two passes defensed and a QB hit that sent the football fluttering into the waiting arms of All-Pro cornerback Patrick Surtain.
Before Surtain put six on the board going the other way, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison had an interception that led to the touchdown to put Miami out in front. Facing a 12-7 deficit, the Dolphins defense relied on Madison – or as he's known by his teammates, 10-on-10 – on an island against three-time Pro-Bowl wideout Rod Smith. Madison chucked the Broncos receiver in the five-yard window and picked off the Brian Griese pass.
"Going up against Pat and Sam every day, that made us better," Gadsden said. "Especially in press-man coverage. If [the opponent] played press, then you better believe we were ready for it."
The first snap following Madison's interception quickly put the Denver defense on its heels. A 16-yard strike to – who else – Gadsden, set the Dolphins up at the plus 36-yard-line. Ricky Williams would finish off the drive and give Miami the lead with a 2-yard touchdown run five plays later.
"To have Ricky back there, you knew with that defense we could salt the game away," Gadsden said.
Williams scored the final offensive touchdown of the night for Miami, but he wasn't the last Dolphin to visit the end zone in the game.
Jason Taylor's aforementioned pressure on Griese put the football in between the 2 and the 3 on Surtain's jersey, and he raced 40 yards back to pay dirt to give Miami a commanding 21-12 lead – or so everyone thought.
Denver would answer with a quick touchdown, and though the Dolphins next drive didn't put points on the board, a shoestring catch on third-and-5 by Gadsden helped Miami take it to the 2-minute warning with a 2-point lead.
Each of Gadsden's receptions were crucial; not just for the yards gained and first downs achieved, but how it changed the way Denver defended Williams and the ground game.
"Me being outside, partly because of my size, we would try to force the defense to let me have the one-on-one matchups while everybody else was in zone," Gadsden said. "The safeties would stay close to the box to try to help against the run, which means they couldn't help outside and left me one-on-one. Every one-one-one under 15 yards, I was pretty confident I could win."
On that penultimate offensive series, Fiedler held court with the Dolphins training staff after his thumb hit a Broncos helmet on the follow-through. We later learned that the play broke Fiedler's thumb and knocked him out of the lineup for the next five games, but that didn't stop him from finishing the task at hand.
Jason Elam sent a 55-yard field goal through the uprights with 40 seconds left, giving Denver a 22-21 lead. Miami had two timeouts in its pocket, its sophomore sensation receiver in Chambers in the locker room, and a passing game that wasn't hitting on all cylinders.
The first play of the series was a drop by Randy McMichael. The play worked in Miami's favor as the rookie tight end would've come down in bounds, forcing Head Coach Dave Wannstedt to burn a valuable timeout. The next play also went incomplete as Fiedler skipped a pass to veteran wideout Dedric Ward – a name we'll hear from again shortly.
On third-and-10 with the game on the line, Fielder found McMichael for a twisting, sprawled-out catch that gained 17 yards and moved the sticks. After a timeout, Miami caught a break on a 22-yard pass to Ward. The ball had a one-way ticket to Denver linebacker John Mobley's breadbasket, but the football grazed his hands and descended into Ward's lap on the fringe of field goal range.
Fortunately, for Miami, the big leg of Mare made a 53-yard boot look routine. The operation was clean. Snap good, hold down, kick on its way, and as the ball hit its apex, the Dolphins reaction spoiled the ending.
Mare sprinted off, chased by his field goal unit. Jason Taylor, towel in-hand, exhausted from the grueling affair, celebrated the victory. The back-and-forth emotions held Gadsden's full attention.
"The play to Mobley, that was like in basketball when the coach is yelling 'no, no!'" Gadsden said. "Then the shot goes in and it's 'okay, good shot.'"
That was the mentality of those Dolphins teams of the late-90's and the early 2000's.
"We had a good defense and Olindo," Gadsden said. "So we knew that if we kept the game close we could pull it out at the end."
And that formula played out that night in Denver.
Miami scored 17 of its 24 points in that fourth quarter. After a fist-fight of a game that saw the two teams post a combined 19 points through three quarters, a 27-point fourth quarter featured three lead changes, making for one of the most memorable victories in Dolphins history.